Clinton Briefing on Latin America

Saturday, December 12, 2009
Yesterday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held her first "Diplomacy Briefing Series Meeting" at the State Department.

The theme of the meeting was "Issues and Challenges of U.S. Relations With Latin America."

Here's an excerpt of Secretary Clinton's introductory remarks and some poignant questions and answers:

SECRETARY CLINTON: Well, it is a very great pleasure to be here today to welcome you to the first in a series of diplomacy briefings that we will be hosting here at the State Department. I want to thank all of you for being part of this because it is in keeping with our efforts to reach out and to have a dialogue about what we're doing and how we're doing it, and to seek your ideas as well.

Later this morning, you'll have the opportunity to engage with some of our State Department leadership on the way forward in Afghanistan and pursuant of the President's policy. You'll be able to discuss ways that the United States intends to expand global economic opportunity and ensure citizens' safety. We also have some community activists and students listening from New York City, San Antonio, Texas, and Miami, Florida. So we are also using technology to bring us together. The Western Hemisphere, we decided, was a fitting place for us to start this effort because of our deep ties, our shared history, so many familial and cultural connections. We are connected by geography and history, by shared challenges, and a common future that we all have the capacity to help shape.

QUESTION: Good morning. My name is Susana Molina and I'm from the University of Central Florida. My question is: Is democratic progress in danger by social unrest and the rise of the left in Latin America? Whether yes or no, how do these developments affect U.S. interest?

SECRETARY CLINTON: Great question, and I think the University of Central Florida may be in Orlando, not Miami. Is that right? (Applause.) Yes.

QUESTION: Yes.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes, I've – we have to coordinate our facts here. But that's a really important question. I feel so strongly that we have to support the rights of all people to voice their opinions, and we want to further economic equality, not just prosperity, because for too many years, prosperity has increased in Latin America without being equally distributed. We want to build a strong base of democratic support for fundamental freedoms of all people, and governments need to be effective, accountable, and responsive to the needs of their citizens.

And I said earlier in my remarks that you really have to be supporting the entire institutional foundation for democracy. And we do worry about leaders who get elected and get elected fairly and freely and legitimately, but then, upon being elected, begin to undermine the constitutional and democratic order, the private sector, the rights of people to be free from harassment, depression, to be able to participate fully in their societies.

So I worry about how we get back on the track where we recognize that democracy is not about individual leaders. It is about strong institutions. Good leaders come and go. Obviously, we've had our own experience in this country with that. And so we need to make it absolutely an article of faith that any leader elected must not just further his own position and his power base, but respect the rights of the people who elected him and build up the democracy so that democratic development and economic development can go hand in hand.

I mean, obviously, we have expressed our concerns about Venezuela, about Nicaragua. We will continue to express our concerns, because it's important that we sound a strong call to people and to leaders to really stay on the path of democracy. So I thank you for your question, and obviously, we all hope in the not-too-distant future to be able to see a democratic Cuba, something that would be extraordinarily positive for our hemisphere. (Applause.)

We'll take the next question over here.

SECRETARY CLINTON: Yes, sir.

QUESTION: I have a concern because in the trafficking of passports from – especially from China, buying basically different – I don't know if the State Department is doing any investigation or not – from different nations. And that seems to be like, once they buy a passport from, let's say, a nation down in Venezuela, Bolivia, and they sell a business which seems to be a front for a – behind giant economic enterprise on there. So is the State Department doing some investigation on – another question also is the – in term – the penetration, basically, of China and other nations like Iran from Latin America. Of course, you mentioned Bolivia – I don't think you mentioned Bolivia. You should also mention Venezuela, Bolivia, well – as well as other nations that are basically (inaudible) international, basically, security issue that I'm very concerned.

SECRETARY CLINTON: I thank you for raising this. We're concerned too. In speaking to a number of the Central American countries, they have reported to us large numbers of people being trafficked into their countries, particularly Chinese, but not exclusively Chinese. And we do need to redouble our efforts to try to help our friends in Central America deal with this. I was told in one of the countries that there is a large detention area – detention center which has hundreds and hundreds of people who are there illegally from China.

So this is a problem that is affecting a number of our friends, and we are working with them to try to provide more resources and support to help them deal with it. And as you point out, we have no problem with any country such as China engaging in economic activities – business, commerce – with any country anywhere. But we do want governments to drive hard bargains. We don't want to see corruption that benefits the fortunes of a few leaders and undermines the sustainability of the economy and the environment and the natural resources of any country.

We also are well aware of Iran's interests in promoting itself with a number of other countries – Venezuela and Bolivia, as you mentioned – and we can only say that that is a really bad idea for the countries involved. And we hope that there will be a recognition that this is the major supporter, promoter, and exporter of terrorism in the world today. The Revolutionary Guard of Iran, which is increasing its control over the country because of the elections, which were a stark example of the abuse of human rights in action, is deeply involved in the economy as well as the security issues of Iran. And I think that if people want to flirt with Iran, they should take a look at what the consequences might well be for them, and we hope that they will think twice, and we're going to support them if they do. (Applause.)